Summary: The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) claims to be a non-profit legal and educational organization which uses litigation “to advance the law in a positive direction and “strengthen the broader movement for constitutional and human rights.” In the past, CCR has been active in advancing civil rights in the United States, but its activities have become more radicalized. This organization contributes to the demonization of Israel and exploitation of international law primarily through its lawsuits against Israeli officials for alleged “war crimes, extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In this process, CCR consistently disregards the context of terror, denies Israel’s right to self-defense, and accuses it of deliberately targeting civilians.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), founded in 1966 by well-known attorneys Morton Stavis, William Kunstler, Ben Smith and Arthur Kinoy, is dedicated to “defending and advancing the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” CCR was originally named the Law Center for Constitutional Rights and its founding four attorneys devoted their work to advancing the cause of civil rights in Mississippi. Some of CCR’s highlights, which are featured on its website, include “protecting activist lawyers from attacks,” defending the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers, advancing women’s rights, and filing other cases seeking to end racial discrimination.
Since its inception, however, CCR has broadened the scope of its activities to include issues related to international human rights, government misconduct, racial and economic justice and corporate accountability. CCR’s homepage prominently features their Guantanamo Action Center, which highlights suits that CCR has filed against the United States on the grounds that “Guantánamo has become an intelligence and national security failure, a moral stain on our nation, and a corrupt symbol that cannot continue.” In November 2006, CCR, in conjunction with the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), filed suit in Germany against Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes. CCR’s website includes a page with information on their representation of “about 300 individuals accused of violating the Cuba [travel] ban.”
CCR Funding and Partners
CCR’s net assets as of June 30, 2006 amounted to $5,029,974, seventy-seven percent of which was received from endowments, foundations and individual gifts. These donations include large donations from the Ford Foundation, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. There are over 1,050 other foundations and individuals which have given to CCR.
CCR’s partners include the International Federation for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. NGO Monitor has documented in-depth the anti-Israel campaigning and abuse of human rights principles by these organizations. CCR also maintains extensive links with the National Lawyer’s Guild, a group which officially supports anti-Israel boycotts and the Palestinian claims regarding a “right of return”. Michael Ratner, President of the Board of Directors of CCR, is former president of the National Lawyers Guild. In July 2006, the NLG’s Middle East Subcommittee issued a condemnation of “Israel’s crimes against humanity and brutal aggression against Palestine and Lebanon.” This subcommittee has formulated a "Resolution to Divest, in Practice and Principle, from Israel"; a "Resolution to Stop and Dismantle the Wall"; and a "Resolution Affirming the Individual and Collective Palestinian Right of Return." In March 2006 the NLG urged “support for the boycott of Israeli goods.”
On December 11, 2006, CCR was honored by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America at a conference held in New York. In an unusual move, RHR’s Israel branch criticized the CCR award, stating that “this incident demonstrates the ideological rift that exists between us and our sister organization in North America.”
Notable CCR Principals
CCR’s President, Michael Ratner, is a well-known radical activist and attorney. Ratner represented as co-counsel Guantanamo Bay detainees at the U.S. Supreme Court and is an avid proponent of using litigation to prosecute alleged abuses of human rights. He sued the George H. W. Bush administration to stop the First Gulf War (1991) and former President Clinton over the bombing in Kosovo. In addition, Ratner is a member of the Board of Advisors of Grassroots International, a Boston-based NGO, which was “born out of a commitment to justice for Palestinians. In the nearly two decades since then, the cause of Palestinian rights remains central to GRI and its supporters." Among its activities, Grassroots International fundraises for PCHR.
Board of Directors member, Karima Bennoune, acted as a West Bank “observer” for the Chicago-based Human Rights Research and Education Foundation. She was involved in altercations with Israeli police at the US Consulate in Jerusalem, and was later detained and deported. She later wrote the anti-Israeli article “ An Arab American’s Experience in the Occupied Territories,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Spring 1988).
According to CCR’s 2006 Annual Report, board member, Michelle DePass, is currently a Program Officer in the Community and Resource Development Unit of the Ford Foundation where she leads the Foundation’s work in the area of Environmental Justice and Healthy Communities.
International Human Rights
CCR’s International Human Rights program comprises a central component of its mandate, and claims to have, “pioneered the field of civil human rights litigation.” Since 1980, CCR has used the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) to allow foreign victims of human rights abuses to adjudicate their claims in United States courts. In the past, CCR has used the ATCA to bring multinational corporations allegedly engaged in human rights abuses to justice. However, CCR’s current international human rights docket obsessively singles out Israel using allegations of “crimes against humanity” and “intentional targeting of civilians.” CCR ignores Israel’s security environment, omits the context of terrorism, and denies its legitimate right to self-defense. No similar actions have been taken against officials of terror groups such as the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah, or against the governments that support their atrocities and arm them, including Syria and Iran.
Cases against Israel
Of the nine international human rights cases that are currently on CCR’s docket, two target Israeli officials. A review of CCR’s other cases suggests that the organization draws a moral equivalency between Israel’s self-defensive military operations and the brutal repressive tactics of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, responsible for the ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and massacres of Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s, and currently under indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. No CCR publications, statements, or lawsuits were found on the conflicts and massive human rights abuses in Darfur, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Iran, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea after searching the organization’s website.
Other notable CCR activities against Israel include a case against Caterpillar Inc. on behalf of the parents of Rachel Corrie for knowingly “providing specially designed bulldozers to Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that it knew would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians”. In an open letter to President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, CCR excoriated the United States for selling weapons to Israel, making the specious claim that “Israel’s conduct cannot be equated in any way with that of its enemies but is vastly superior in its catastrophic consequences.” In an anti-Israel strategy document drafted by the UN Workshop on Palestine Work in the Global Peace Movement, CCR is listed as an organization that should be utilized to promote the Palestinian narrative.
CCR’s Attempted Prosecution of Israeli Officials
Belhas v. Ya’alon
On December 15, 2005, CCR filed a case against Moshe Ya’alon, then former head of the Intelligence Branch and former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The plaintiff, Saadallah Ali Belhas, allegedly lost his wife and three children in an attack by the IDF against a Hezbollah stronghold in Qana, Lebanon in 1996. CCR, which represented plaintiffs in the case, charged Yaalon with “war crimes, extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The complaint further claims that forces under Ya’alon’s command were “deliberately and wantonly attacking and killing” civilians who had taken refuge in a UN compound near Qana and failed to warn the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) compound of impending attacks.
CCR’s case against Ya’alon is predicated on the conviction that the IDF targeted a UN compound for the sole reason of inflicting harm against civilians. The website’s summary of the case deletes the context of the ongoing terror attacks against Israel. (In the five weeks prior to the incident, seven Israelis were killed by Hezbollah attacks, and the IDF response was intended to prevent Hezbollah from launching Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel. CCR also ignores Hezbollah’s use of human shields at the time of the IDF operation – in itself a clear violation of international law.
Even Human Rights Watch, which issued a critical report against Israel, acknowledged that “the only thing you [the public] can accuse us of being weak is on the issue of Hizballah shielding.” (Ellen Yan, “Rights Group Chides Israel, Hezbollah,” Newsday, May 23, 1996).
Defendant’s court filings reveal that CCR omitted critical facts from its filings, including that more countries voted against or abstained from voting for a UN General Assembly Resolution condemning the bombing than those countries who voted for it. Moreover, the determination of former President Clinton that the incident was a “tragic misfiring in Israel’s legitimate exercise of its right to self defense” is also missing from CCR’s synopses. The case was dismissed by the federal court judge on December 14, 2006.
Matar v. Dichter
The second case filed by CCR against an Israeli government official sought to prosecute Avi Dichter, former Director of Israel’s General Security Service. On December 8, 2005, CCR together with radical Palestinian NGO, PCHR, charged Dichter with “war crimes and other gross human rights violations,” for an attack which allegedly killed fifteen people, including Sheik Salah Shehada, a founder of the military wing of Hamas and one of Israel’s most wanted terrorists.
The attack against Shehada took place on June 22, 2002, when the Israeli Air Force fired a missile into Shehada’ home, killing fifteen and injuring around 100 people. CCR’s summary implies that the IDF attack in Gaza was motivated by nothing more than a desire for wanton destruction and killing of innocents. The synopses, however, ignores that Shehada masterminded hundreds of terror attacks, including a bus bombing which killed many Israelis in Jerusalem a month earlier. CCR also pointedly fails to mention that one day prior to the Israeli attack, Shehada took responsibility for an attack in Tel-Aviv on June 16 in which eight Israelis were killed in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen dressed as Israeli soldiers.
Charging Dichter with “intentional attacks on civilians,” suggests a serious lack of understanding, if not deliberate obfuscation, by CCR regarding the norms of international law related to self-defense against terrorism. Indeed, in its procedural maneuvering in court, CCR filed a motion asking the court to strike from the record evidence produced by Dichter regarding Shehada’s terrorist activity and historical background regarding Hamas’ war against Israel. On May 2, 2007, the US federal judge dismissed CCR’s case against Dichter, but in terms of anti-Israel demonization, CCR had achieved its goal.
Case Against Caterpillar Inc.
On March 15, 2005, CCR filed a suit against Caterpillar, Inc. on behalf of the parents of Rachel Corrie, an International Solidarity Movement campaigner who was accidentally killed by an IDF bulldozer while trying to interfere with an anti-terror operation on March 16, 2003. CCR maintains that Caterpillar knowingly, “provided specially designed bulldozers to Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that it knew would be used to demolish homes and endanger civilians.” The NGO further claims that Corrie was a “peace activist protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes,” who was “brutally killed.” This description is a misrepresentation of the events leading to Corrie’s death. NGO Monitor as well as other organizations have reported on the circumstances surrounding her death. Once again, CCR has deleted this crucial information from the record.
CCR Response to the Lebanon War, Summer 2006
On July 27, 2006 CCR issued a letter to President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, condemning the United States for selling weapons to Israel which were “not being used for internal security or legitimate self-defense, as required by the AECA [Arms Export Control Act.” The letter accuses Israel of purposefully “attack[ing] civilians and civilian infrastructure,” in Lebanon for reasons other than security and self-defense that “are prohibited by international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes.” The letter ends with a call to halt all arms exports to Israel, which are ultimately being used “in the slaughter of more civilians.” CCR issued no statement condemning the actions of Hezbollah and made no demand that Syria or Iran stop its arming of Hezbollah or for calling on those countries to stop facilitating the deliberate killing of Israeli civilians.
Despite CCR’s claimed commitment to strengthening international human rights, a review of the NGO’s work suggests otherwise. Although there are certain areas in which CCR has followed its mandate, the disproportionate criticism of Israel and disregard for the context of terror severely detracts from the organization’s integrity. It is particularly disturbing that for an organization committed to legal frameworks and protecting human rights, in the case of Israel, CCR consistently applies double standards, ignoring the abuses committed against Israeli civilians. By doing so, CCR promotes injustice, undermines international law, contributes to a culture of impunity by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and advances the demonization of Israel.